Three takeaways from last night’s debate

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TRUMP’S IMPLOSION

It was inevitable that the first question to Trump would be about the recently leaked video of him revealing his avid hobby of non-consensual kissing and grabbing of women by their genitals. A moderator, Anderson Cooper from CNN, asked him to explain to the American people what he said and meant in the leaked audio. Trump dismissed it as “locker-room talk”, then quickly changed the subject – actually, to a plethora of subjects. He proceeded to engage in a barrage of topics ranging from everything to anything, as long as it wasn’t related to the tape: ISIS, borders, Hillary’s emails, Bill Clinton etc. He even went on to utter, in quick succession, his promise to make America great, safe and wealthy again.

This word salad of unrelated talking points all came in response to the question about the leaked tape. For a candidate who has repeatedly branded himself as the only non-politician amongst a sea of what he calls lying, immoral and unqualified career politicians, this was a very politician-like performance from Trump. The questions the moderators asked never seemed relevant to him throughout the night – he had a clear plan, and that was to divert as much attention away from the tape as possible.

For the first time in a long campaign, Trump looked clearly like he wasn’t enjoying himself. Whereas in the Republican primary debates, where he dismantled “low-energy Jeb” and “lyin’ Ted” with a gleeful smirk and swagger, his facial expressions last night as Clinton carefully and precisely attacked him, calling him “unfit to be president and commander-in-chief”, betrayed a rattled man after a rattling week.

The prime example illustrating this was the pre-debate press conference he held with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or rape, and his subsequent strategic placement of these women in the audience. He pointed them out as he sneered: “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse… there’s never been anybody in the history so politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women.” Setting the fact that Bill Clinton has never had charges brought against him aside, Trump said this as if any of it made his boasts about sexual assault less inflammatory or unacceptable.

His discomfort also manifested itself in the form of aggressive and constant interrupting of his opponent, which certainly will not help improve his dwindling support amongst women. At times in the debate, he would tower a few feet from Clinton as she spoke, perhaps in the attempt to show physical dominance. What it looked like was a hyper-masculine expression of insecurity; a desperate leap to the final page of the playbook that says men simply look more presidential then women. His presidential credentials certainly did not reveal itself – his desperation certainly did.

A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN… OR HELL

The fact that Clinton has been unable to generate any significant momentum and pull away from Trump in the polls is an indictment of her campaign and, more significantly, of her as a politician. Trump is one of the most divisive, polarising, controversial and hated presidential candidates in the history of American politics, and yet Clinton has largely been unable to show any promise of finally halting the Trump machine.

Clinton’s inefficacy when it comes to capitalising on Trump’s many gaffes and scandals continued last night. Too many times, she allowed Trump to attack her with impunity. Repeating the tactic she employed in the last debate, she once again asked viewers to go to her website for a real-time fact checking of Trump’s statements.

Her response to Trump’s aggressive attacks felt timid and inappropriate, because a demagogic candidate like Trump deserves a scathing critique. Clinton’s repeated pleas to viewers towards her campaign website certainly fell short of what Trump deserves and what many viewers would like to see. The fact that many observers, including Clinton supporters, have declared yesterday’s debate a draw is certainly not to the credit of Clinton’s performance last night.

It has been repeatedly said that this presidential election features two extremely flawed candidates who are facing the one candidate they can beat: the two of the most unpopular presidential candidates ever. This truth certainly rang true as we watched Clinton defend herself last night as an imploding Trump did his best to make sure that Clinton would implode alongside him.

Coming into the debate, Clinton already possessed several self-inflicted wounds: her emails, her “deplorables” comment and, her most recent wound, the leak of transcripts from her Wall Street speeches. These wounds were repeatedly and ferociously jabbed at by Trump throughout the night. First, he reinvigorated his attacks on her for her email scandal, a stain in her campaign that she has largely been unable to get rid of: “The thing that you should be apologizing for are the 33,000 emails that you deleted…” he bellowed. He accused her of “acid-washing” the deleted emails, portraying her as having knowingly broken rules during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Then, he engaged in a blistering attack of her character, saying that she “has tremendous hate in her heart”, alluding to her “basket of deplorables” comment. To say Trump did not land any punches in last night’s debate is to have one’s judgement clouded by bias. Trump’s aggressive jabs did not necessarily have to land, but land they did, because Clinton was surprisingly unconvincing in her responses to both Trump’s attacks on her as well as the moderators’ questions over her emails and other controversies.

She apologised again for her email fiasco, and in perhaps the worst moment of the night for her, she was questioned over recently leaked transcripts of speeches she made to Wall Street bankers, where she said that politicians “need both a public and a private position” on issues. She defended her remarks by citing Abraham Lincoln and the Spielberg biopic released a few years ago, which she says was the inspiration behind her statement: “It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment.” Her confused and unconvincing response did not seem an adequate defence of her controversial remarks which seem to justify politicians being two-faced – this is especially damaging to her campaign because two-faced is exactly what many see her as.

TRUMP DOESN’T UNDERSTAND DEMOCRACY… OR DOESN’T CARE

“If I win,” Trump said, “I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”

Presidential debates often provide the soundbites that can encapsulate in a few words an entire presidential campaign. In 1980, Ronald Reagan summed up the general sentiment after four years of economic “stagflation” under the Carter administration by asking viewers: “’Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”. In 1992, Bill Clinton responded intensely to a question about the economy and in doing so, portrayed himself as the more compassionate candidate at the expense of incumbent George Bush Sr., who did not have the oratory skills to compete: “When people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know their names”.

It is a sad truth that this election can be encapsulated by Trump’s aforementioned threat to Clinton in last night’s debate, which was followed up by a guarantee of imprisonment for Clinton if he were to become president: “You would be in jail.” What this shows is that Trump is ignorant (actually we already know that). More specifically, he is ignorant about how the legal system works. Special prosecutors are appointed by the attorney general, for the specific and important reason to enable investigations into government officials without political interference or the threat of it. Trump’s threat to jail his political opponent if he were to become president is an exact contravention of the purpose of special prosecutors and the principle of judicial independence within the democratic framework of separation of powers.

But perhaps Trump knows that what he’s saying is undemocratic but doesn’t care. This is a much scarier proposition, because it is then therefore a reflection of his voters, Americans, who in their desire to see their opponent defeated by their candidate are willing to support someone who flagrantly disregards the democratic principles America was built upon.

We must bear in mind Trump’s other promises, most of which infused with authoritarian rather than democratic undertones: as president he would utilise executive power to target ethnic and religious minorities, barring Muslims from entering the US, forcefully deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, as well as disregard the privacy of Muslim Americans by putting into place surveillance of mosques. Trump’s presidential campaign is more befitting of a banana republic than an advanced liberal democracy in the 21st century.

This is a problem that transcends any of the pantomime politics we’ve witnessed in the past year, or any of the petty arguments over whether Trump is racist, homophobe or misogynist. It is a serious problem in the long-run if increasing numbers of Americans are susceptible to demagoguery in the pursuit of political exaltation. This is because though many might consider this year’s presidential election to be a “one-off”, in terms of the unprecedented stupidity, ignorance and controversy we’ve witnessed thus far, Trump’s campaign is not just an indictment of himself but of his voters, the American people, and American society today as well. A “one-off” election could very well become the norm.

How Trump-Haters have helped Trump

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The 45th President of the United States: Donald Trump.

Picture that for a second.

Similarly in Europe, a plethora of far-right, nationalist and populist (some even neo-fascist) parties have propelled to new heights of power in their respective countries. In Sweden (Bernie’s education-and-healthcare-for-all socialist paradise), the third biggest party in parliament currently is one that has roots in white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Across Europe, several Trump-like politicians have gained as much support in their countries as Trump has in his: Marine Le Pen in France, Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary.

I want to argue that the root causes of far-right resurgence in both the US and in Europe has been misdiagnosed – or rather, incomprehensively so. Even though the supporters of demagogues like Trump are the ones voting them into office, their supporters are not entirely to blame for what is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

Growing support for Trump and for politicians like him is as much a product of those who aren’t voting for them as those who are. Here’s why.

Immigration, Terrorism and Refugees

The far-right has built its support amongst their electorates by capitalising on three issues which they have bound together: immigration, terrorism and more recently, refugees.

In Europe, so-called “losers” of globalisation and laissez-faire economics are lashing out at the status quo. Smack in the centre of their crosshairs has been the EU and its central policy of free movement of people.

Across the pond, Trump astutely summarises the prevalent sentiment amongst his core working-class voters when he proclaims in rallies: “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

Though I am sure that Trump himself has no idea what he is talking about (or what “credo” even means), it is indisputable that Trump is tapping into a culmination of frustration pent-up over the years – a well of frustration his European equivalents are bathing in as well.

Now consider terrorism. The quickening pace by which attacks are occurring in Europe and the US has exacerbated an already polarised political landscape. The debate over terrorism and its causes has been intertwined with the immigration debate to further deepen the schism that divides opposing sides in public discourse.

On top of all this, the emotionally-fraught matter of refugees has emerged and intensified over the last few years, like a shell exploding smack in between opposing trenches already deeply divided over immigration and terrorism. Virtually any common-ground that existed in the first place has been obliterated, the trenches further apart than ever before, and the few brave souls with olive branches in hand who venture into no man’s land are shot at from both sides.

The chief reason why many who hate Trump are themselves culpable for his rise is their contribution to creating the trench warfare that is our public discourse today – they’re digging trenches as ferociously as their enemies.

They’re not culpable because of the policies they prescribe. Rather, it is their approach in tackling those who disagree with them, especially when it comes to the three aforementioned issues, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Racist, Bigoted, Xenophobic etc.

In a democracy, there’s no guarantee that the best policy will prevail amongst a set of alternatives. Brexit reflects this fact. The best policy will most likely come about when a significant part of the electorate wants it, and rarely if that isn’t the case. The implementation of your ideal policies is contingent on the approval of your fellow voters.

Bearing this fact about our democratic politics in mind, the question must be raised: why have so many people developed a propensity to demonise those who hold different views to theirs? Surely they know that calling someone a racist makes that person less likely to agree with them.

Ad hominem attacks is the preferred strategy of many people today when confronting those who disagree, especially on the three aforementioned issues. Labels such as racist, bigot and xenophobe are thrown around callously at those who dare to have a different opinion.

Is someone who opposes illegal immigration undoubtedly a racist? Is someone who has concerns about the security of letting refugees into Europe invariably a xenophobe? Is someone who asks whether Islam played a role in motivating a terrorist automatically an Islamophobe?  Many people today seem to have a certain answer to such questions: Yes.

The incessant demonisation is hugely consequential because it hasn’t just been inflicted on the far-right, where the genuine bigots, racists and xenophobes reside. The moderate-right has not been spared by tactics of demonisation, which have been indiscriminate, to say the least. It has become increasingly clear that the only condition that must be met for a flurry of insults and personal attacks to be deployed is that the target simply disagrees.

Think back to the days before Trump’s campaign (how far away those days seem now). Were the labels of racist, bigot and xenophobe used much more sparingly, rarely ever heard in public discourse? The answer is no. Long before Trump emerged, moderate establishment Republicans were already being targeted, examples such as John McCain and Paul Ryan being called “racists”, Mitt Romney being labelled a “homophobe”.

Of course, tactics targeting the character and integrity of a rival politician pays dividends. No one wants to be called a “racist” or a “bigot”, especially in the deeply race-sensitive United States. By presenting the political divisions between the left and the right as one steeped in a moral disparity between the two sides, the left benefited politically from the superior position they placed themselves in, whilst portraying their opponents as morally inferior, bigoted beings.

Many on the left, instead of devising the best arguments to persuade the dissenters of their erroneous conclusions, focussed its efforts on questioning the dissenter’s intentions and integrity. Rarely was the goal to convert the dissenter to their side of the argument – more often, the rhetoric employed had the aim of rendering the dissenting grievance illegitimate and present it as being borne out of racism and bigotry.

Legitimate Grievances

But years of demonisation has completed the proverbial cycle of coming back and biting the left in its ass. When the grievances of a large group of voters in a democracy are not even afforded the respect of being perceived as legitimate by fellow voters and politicians, what will inevitably occur is the unsavoury process of these disillusioned, marginalised and ostracised voters latching on to demagogues who will at least provide them the luxury of certifying the legitimacy of their grievances, and that is what we’ve seen.

One of the reasons Trump commands the support he has is that his campaign legitimises grievances previously delegitimised by political correctness, ad hominem rebukes and establishment politics. Tired of years of politicians and the media moralising about how their opinions reveal them to be bigots and racists, voters with aberrant views have secured a champion for their cause – a man who observed an overly politically correct public sphere and proceeded then to blow it apart through a campaign strategy of saying outrageous things and then, infuriatingly for many, not apologising for saying them.

Before Trump, voters could not voice their legitimate opposition to illegal immigration without their opinion being straw-manned as being anti-immigration. They could not voice legitimate concerns about the influx of refugees without being called anti-refugee. They could not raise legitimate questions about the role Islam plays in the radicalising of young Muslim men without being called islamophobic or racist. Actually, they still can’t today without these labels being hurled at them, but the difference is that today they have a major presidential candidate who will say and ask the same things.

Until people banish their habit of demonising those who merely disagree with them, the far-right will continue its growing influence in both European and American politics. This is because there will continue to be marginalised voters who would rather support genuinely bigoted demagogues who will at least allow their grievances to be aired, than politicians who refuse to even acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.

A man and a word

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I am currently reading A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN. Her book, published in 2002, is about genocides in the 20th century and America’s respons as they were happening. In it, she writes about Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide. His life story is incredibly inspiring, and so I decided to write a brief summary of his life, focusing on his efforts to ban genocide. 

Raphael Lemkin was a Polish Jew born at the advent of the 20th century; a century defined by violence on an unprecedented global scale. Not only did Lemkin’s life serve to provide his contemporaries and subsequent generations that follow with a word to describe much of the tragedy that unfolded in the bloody century, he himself came close to having his own blood shed, as a Jew fleeing the persecution of the Nazis during WWII. It is this pertinent mixture of personal struggle with a wider international tragedy of needless suffering that imbued his life’s endeavours with an extra sense of urgency and meaning.

As a young boy growing up in eastern Poland, Lemkin was fascinated by stories depicting barbaric violence and murder. His own experience of harmonious existence with his many Christian neighbours was a far cry from how Roman emperor Nero persecuted Christian converts in the 1st century, a story he read about in Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? Not only did Lemkin as a curious, young boy provide an intimation of his developing literary prowess, it also foreshadowed the fixation that would remain constant throughout his adult life in one particular subject oft-explored by writers throughout history – mass slaughter of citizens by those tasked with protecting them.

Lemkin’s seemingly precocious fascination with stories of extreme violence and barbarity shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, his family was not immune to the conflicts ubiquitous in Europe during his childhood years. During WWI, the fighting between the Germans and the Russians destroyed the farmhouse in rural Poland that his family called home. Desperate to protect their children, Lemkin’s parents buried their family valuables and books and took their children into the forests surrounding their property, fleeing the artillery fire raining down from above. His brother, Samuel, died of pneumonia and malnourishment whilst they hid in the woods. Lemkin knew from a young age what war means for those most undeserving of its tragic consequences.

He first enrolled in the University of Lvov in Poland (now called Lviv University and in Ukraine) to study philology  – the study of the history and evolution of language. He spoke seven languages before he reached the age of 20, and was planning to add Arabic and Sanskrit to his linguistic portfolio. His study of languages gave him an understanding of the power that language has – the value of apt descriptions, the power of names. But it was not long before he had transferred to law school, beginning a love affair with the law that would last his entire lifetime – a field of study where precision and clarity in the use of language is of paramount importance.

The conversion from the study of language to that of law came about after he read about the story of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Armenian who in 1921 murdered Talaat Pasha, the chief orchestrator of the persecution of Armenians domiciled in the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Talaat was never prosecuted for his crimes, and was living in post-war Germany as an ordinary citizen, his life untainted despite being responsible for the deaths of more than a million lives. Lemkin was aghast when he read about Tehlirian’s story. He couldn’t understand why Tehlirian was being prosecuted for the murder of one man, when that man had murdered more by orders of magnitude and was never held accountable.

In 1933, Lemkin prepared a paper to present to an international law conference in Madrid. Alluding to the plight of the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire whilst highlighting the rise of the nascent Nazi Party in Germany, Lemkin warned his colleagues that there was no guarantee that the demons of the past will not rear their ugly heads again. The problem was that notions of sovereignty gave rise to impunity for those who committed heinous crimes, as long as those crimes were committed by agents of the state operating within their sovereign boundaries.

The “sovereignty” defence was what made possible Talaat’s and other Ottoman Turks’ successful evasion of legal prosecution. The solution Lemkin posited was a new international law that would punish perpetrators of mass slaughter, regardless of national boundaries, legal jurisdictions and other national and judicial considerations. But Lemkin never made it to the conference; he was not allowed a permit to travel to Madrid. The Polish authorities were eager to avoid upsetting the charismatic but threatening new Chancellor in bordering Germany, whose impressive oratory and rhetorical skills were effectively stoking nationalist sentiments (it is somewhat fitting that Hitler hampered Lemkin’s first efforts to popularise his ideas, because he certainly helped Lemkin later on by orchestrating the second genocide of the century).

Besides, Lemkin’s proposal of a new international law was not popular when it was read out at the conference. In fact, it was an early indication of the kind of reaction his proposals would receive throughout his life. His radical ideas, underpinned by the principle of universal jurisdiction, threatened entrenched traditions of international law, specifically those concerning sovereignty and the rights of states to do what they wished within the boundaries in which they governed. As such, it was to be expected that Lemkin was met with hostility and ridicule, a trend that continued for much of his life but which never deterred him..

The outbreak of WWII sparked a protracted journey that took Lemkin across the continent and the Atlantic to the United States. The German invasion of Poland in 1939 impelled him to flee – first to Soviet-controlled Poland, then to his family in Eastern Poland, then to Lithuania, and finally Sweden where he taught at the University of Stockholm. However, Lemkin was not satisfied with life there, despite the security and comfort that neutral Sweden offered. Keenly aware of where power resided in the world and where change was most likely to come about, he longed to move to the United States. After a strenuous journey from Sweden to Russia then to Japan and Canada, Lemkin arrived at Duke University in North Carolina, where he had secured a professorship to teach international law.

Again, despite the comfort and security that life at Duke afforded him, Lemkin didn’t stop his efforts to establish a new international law that would make criminals like Talaat pay for their crimes.  However, he was often left frustrated with the lack of success in his efforts to mobilise support for outlawing the specific type of crime he was trying to eradicate – the crime committed by the Ottoman Empire during WWI against the Armenians and about to be underway in Europe under the direction of the Nazis.

Lemkin saw that a reason for his failure to generate public support was that the crime did not have its own name. When referred to, it was subsumed under the broad category of crimes against humanity. A lot of people were aware of and understood the intricacies of the crime, but it had yet to be linguistically articulated in any satisfactory way. Advocacy against the crime was inherently handicapped by its opponents’ inability to pinpoint exactly what was being fought against.

And so, combining his love for the law and his love for language, Lemkin sought to create a name for the crime. The name he envisioned would convey precisely the barbarity, depravity and totality of the crime. After much thought, he settled on the word that we today still use and a word that still evokes a wince or shudder when heard: “genocide”.

In Greek, geno means “race”. In Latin, cide means “killing”.

Race killing. Or as Henry Morgenthau Sr., the outspoken American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI, put it: race murder. 

Eager to popularise his new word, Lemkin flew to Germany to attend the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII. Once there, he aggressively lobbied anyone of importance, hoping to get the word “genocide” included somewhere – anywhere – in the proceedings. Although he failed to have it included in the eventual convictions, it did feature in the indictments of the defendants.

Buoyed by his minor success, Lemkin then flew to New York, where the newly created United Nations had begun constructing its first autumn agenda. Just as in Nuremberg, he incessantly patrolled the corridors around the meeting rooms in the hopes of persuading lawmakers to adopt a resolution condemning genocide. His efforts were rewarded in 1946, when the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution condemning genocide, and created a committee tasked with drafting a treaty banning the crime.

Not long after, the Genocide Convention was born. Remarkably, it was the first human rights treaty the United Nations adopted, and the definitive legal document outlawing the crime to which we still refer to today – a testament to the tenacious nature of Lemkin’s work behind the scenes. But his work did not end there. The treaty still had to be ratified by twenty member states in order to become official international law. This goal was met not long after, in 1950, an achievement again owing much to Lemkin’s unrelenting lobbying efforts. He would make good use of his polyglotism and fire out letters and memos to lawmakers in different countries, all written in their native languages, urging them to ratify the convention with great haste.

More significantly, the larger and arguably more important task was to get the United States to ratify the treaty, which would ultimately be impotent without the biggest superpower in the world backing it. Unfortunately, there was considerable resistance domestically against ratification. A chief concern amongst lawmakers, particularly from the South, was that the treaty could potentially implicate those responsible for the eradication of Native American tribes in the previous century as well as those who support the then ongoing policy of segregation. These concerns dominated opposition to ratification despite the convention explicitly not being retroactive in its application. After several years of political wrangling, the dispute was settled in 1953, when incoming President Eisenhower made a deal with the paranoid Southern lawmakers, pledging not to ratify the Genocide Convention, nor any other international human rights treaties, in exchange for their support in Congress.

Determined to reverse Eisenhower’s decision, Lemkin dedicated the rest of his life to bringing about United States ratification of the convention. He wrote innumerable letters to grassroots groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the American Zionist Council and every other influential interest group who would conceivably have a dog in the fight. But his efforts were not rewarded. After 25 years dedicated to fighting genocide, creating the word itself and then embedding it in international legal lexicon, Lemkin died of a heart attack in New York City. He died without the United States having ratified the Genocide Convention, nor ever coming close to doing so during his lifetime.

What is Lemkin’s legacy? Some say: not much. Even though, arguably, signatories to the convention are mandated to act “to prevent or punish” acts of genocide, the convention was not invoked during genocides subsequent to its passing, such as the genocide of the Kurds in Iraq orchestrated by Saddam Hussein, the genocide of Cambodians by Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge, or the genocide of Darfuris by Sudanese authorities. However, the ineffectiveness of the convention to prevent genocides is not the fault of Lemkin or those who penned the law back in 1948. It is the fault of those international leaders who choose to sit idly by whilst genocide is perpetrated – those who are unwilling to wield the legal means afforded to them by Lemkin to stop the heinous crime of genocide from occurring.

lemkin grave

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fitting Election for a Polarised Country

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Congress has not been popular the last couple of years. A constant barrage of criticism has come as a result of the legislative body’s record-breaking dysfunction. Charges of petty partisanship, irresponsible grandstanding and the valuing of careers over integrity have dominated assessments of Congress’ performance. Members of Congress were hounded by the media and their constituents, all demanding to know: why can’t you compromise, put away your partisan differences and work across the aisle for the sake of the American people who you represent?  Record low approval ratings reflect the public’s indignation – at their lowest point in 2013, members of Congress were polling less favourably than head lice.

It must therefore be somewhat bemusing for them to watch the current presidential election unfold.

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Education doesn’t mean Indoctrination

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People are outraged at a school in Tennessee. It has been reported that kids at Spring Hill Middle School have been forced to recite a popular creed of Islam in class: “There is no God but Allah”. Parents are up in arms, demanding repercussions for the teachers who, they accuse, are trying to indoctrinate and convert their kids to Islam. On the surface, it is easy to see why these parents are outraged. Their kids, many Christian, as the school is in the heart of the Bible-belt, have been made to “proclaim” that Allah is the only God, contravening their own religious beliefs. But, upon learning more about the context (very important but often ignored) and circumstances in which these kids were made to recite this Islamic creed, one can only be bemused about all the outrage.

First of all, if you look at the widely circulating picture of the notes that the kids have been made to write, it becomes clear that in no way is this indoctrination. The kids are being taught the definition of a creed – a basic statement that sums up someone’s belief. Subsequently, in quotation marks, the kids have written “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”, the focal point of the outrage.

The quote marks are really important here in providing context, something all the outraged outlets such as Breitbart and Fox has omitted to note. These quotations marks indicate that these kids aren’t being made to recite and “proclaim” Allah as the one true God, as is being reported. Rather, they are being taught what Muslims recite every day, the “Shahada”, possibly the most basic and fundamental creed in Islam, hence the quotation marks. The teachers aren’t forcing this Islamic creed down the throats of vulnerable young Christian children, which is the caricature being presented; they are introducing to these students the religion of Islam, not converting them.

If you look closely, the final line of the student’s notes reads “When a Muslim recites the creed, they are saying…”, followed by three explanatory points about what the creed means. This is textbook teaching, isn’t it? The teacher first provides the definition (creed), then the example (Shahada) and finally the explanation of what the creed means. But, rather than applaud the quality teaching being displayed here, some parents aren’t happy with the school to say the least.

“It tells me they are trying to convert my children to being Muslim”, an outraged parent told Fox News. Well, if that’s what your child learning about the second most followed religion in the world is telling you, then you ought to take your child out of the school, because you don’t seem to like your child being educated.

What makes all this outrage even more bemusing is the fact that the lesson being taught was social studies, where students learn about society and the wider world around them. Maury County Director of Schools, Chris Marczak, defended the school in a statement, saying that the school system is not endorsing Islam over other religions or trying to “indoctrinate” students. Outraged parent Joy Ellis rebutted in an interview with Breitbart: “I didn’t have a problem with the history of Islam being taught, but to go so far as to make my child write the Shahada, is unacceptable.” So writing down the creed was what crossed the line for her – I didn’t know copying something down meant acceptance in what is being written.

Moreover, in what is possibly the most disturbing part of this whole story, outraged parents are asking why their kids aren’t being taught about ISIS and Islamic terrorists, in what they are calling the “white-washing” of Islam. “The textbook is a very cleaned up version of Islam,” another parent told Fox News. Fox News columnist Todd Starnes agrees: “There were no discussions about extremists slaughtering Christians and Jews. There were no chapters on the extremists beheading people.”

Ummmm, first of all, it doesn’t strike me as a good idea to teach 7th and 8th graders about people being beheaded and murdered by ISIS, regardless of your opinion on Islam. Just doesn’t seem like a good thing to do. Secondly, if you think that the religion of Islam, a religion of 1.6 billion followers, is best represented by the extremists in ISIS beheading and raping innocent civilians, then you probably need a social studies lesson yourself.

(On a side note, I often wonder how beneficial and eye-opening it would be for those people who relentlessly paint Islam as a religion of evil, people who are absolutely opposed to the religion, to have friends or acquaintances who are Muslims. I have several friends who are Muslims, people who I have frequently talked to, debated, discussed and argued with about the religion of Islam. I often question them about the Qur’an, and the barbaric things I see and hear on the news that are constantly placed under the banner of Islam. I have thought of the same criticism of Islam that many on the right have expressed constantly, but having Muslim friends who I talk to has provided me with a perspective and insight that is hard to find, especially when the public discourse surrounding Islam is so overwhelmingly dominated by the actions of a minority of extremists, ignoring the majority of peaceful Muslims)

Experiencing the “Black Lives Matter” movement firsthand

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Earlier this evening, as I went for a walk with my dog, a loud chorus of bellowing car horns filled what had been a tranquil and calm Friday night. Simultaneously shocked and intrigued, I quickly walked over to the source of the noise.

As I turned the corner of Lexington avenue into 56th street, a sudden burst of intense light blurred my vision momentarily. Shielding my eyes from the conspicuous radiance, I made my way down to the middle of the block, where I began to see a train of cars parked in the middle of the street, and the gradually emerging silhouettes of several women, all with one fist in the air, standing in the way of the Mercedes convertible at the front of the train of static vehicles.

“BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!”

Hearing this chant first-hand was slightly surreal because I’ve been hearing it constantly on the news coverage of recent protests in Ferguson and protests elsewhere in the country. What struck me most was the intensity of the chanting. The three words were pounded into the soundtrack of the night like a timpani in a lullaby.

A woman passing out leaflets explained that they were blocking traffic outside a specific pizza shop on that street. It wasn’t a completely random and unprovoked act of civil disobedience. They were angry about the pizzeria’s new pizza of the month, the “PIC-A-NIKA PIZZA”, ingredients including southern fried chicken, sea salted watermelon, and a sunflower seed crust.

To be honest, when I heard the name, I couldn’t help but laugh (a laugh which quickly dissipated as the woman shot me a venomous look). Initially, hearing the name of the pizza, it seemed to me like a phonetic spelling of an Italian pronunciation of “Picnic Pizza” (it so happens that that is the reason the pizzeria gave when questioned). However, upon seeing what the ingredients on the pizza were, certainly invoking stereotypes of an African American appetite, I became less confident of the pizzeria’s reasoning.

Ultimately, I do not know whether the pizzeria intentionally called their pizza “Pic-a-nika” to insult the African American community. It seems very likely to me that they did, but yet equally likely that this has simply been an unfortunate and unintended coincidence. What I do know however is that the protesters delayed lot of people returning home from work after a long day and long week; a postal truck was unable to return back to the depot in time; parents having to calm their screaming kids who were becoming increasingly agitated as time ticked on.

It all seemed, well, rather pointless. The noise, the chanting, shouting, horns blaring etc. The pizzeria was closed and there was no one inside. What exactly was the point of stopping traffic then?

“We shut shit down!” the protesters kept shouting. “Fuck you if you don’t support us!” “You are all part of the problem!”

I have been a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. I believe that African Americans are unfairly treated by law enforcement, and changes need to be made to ensure that they are fairly treated by the police.

However, I believe that for their movement to gain even more support and traction, they need to gain the support of all races, cultures and ethnicity. Naturally, African Americans support this movement, so what is vital is not to alienate those who aren’t African American and are therefore not personally invested in the movement, but can still be sympathetic to the cause.

What I witnessed today was a pointless demonstration that ultimately achieved nothing. No police were called, no journalists appeared and there was no news coverage of the demonstration. Yet dozens of people were made to wait for an hour in their cars, likely having their Friday night spoiled. I chatted with many people on the sidewalks watching the protests, the general consensus not being approval or support, but of dismay and incredulity. Why are they stopping traffic? The pizza shop’s not even open!

These are the types of reactions the Black Lives Matter movement needs to avoid as they seek to effect change.

The Death of Diplomacy

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The idiom “a fool’s errand” is an expression describing a job or duty that has no chance of success. Only a fool would pursue goals that are impossible to achieve.

With this in mind, a question is raised: is diplomacy a fool’s errand? Today, we see many examples of countries trying desperately to solve great issues and problems through their diplomats, but often to no avail. Ironically, it is the country with the biggest diplomatic services, the United States, which has experienced some of the most embarrassing experiences of international diplomacy. One only needs to look at the recent political upheavals in Egypt and Syria to see increasing examples of failing western diplomatic influence in these volatile regions. Undoubtedly, the sentiment that the art of diplomacy is failing in today’s world is becoming increasingly prevalent.

One only needs to compare and analyse the tenures of the two Secretary of States under Obama’s presidency to see why the art of diplomacy is often deemed an inherent futility of international relations. First off, we must remember that the role of Secretary of State is regarded as the “chief diplomat” of the United States government. Therefore, the role of Secretary of State is thoroughly synonymous with the profession of diplomacy, and as the flag bearer of one of the biggest superpowers in the world on an international stage, it is also perhaps the most relevant government role in the world to analyse with regards to diplomacy and all its components.

Obama’s first Secretary of State was Hillary Clinton. Her tenure was ultimately deemed a successful one not only globally, but also domestically, a rare feat in an increasingly partisan country. However, although she was a popular Secretary of State, many argue, paradoxically, that her popularity did not actually stem from her achievements as Secretary of State. Instead, her success simply stemmed from her conservative approach; a blatant reluctance to tackle the big issues in the world.
Clinton largely ignored the diplomatic and more risky side of her office. Rather, she became more of a global ambassador for the United States, focussing on “soft”, less tangible global issues such as women’s rights and people’s right to clean water. Without the usual risks that come with global diplomacy, Clinton largely left her office unscathed, reputation intact. But, this meant an ultimately uneventful tenure as Secretary of State.

In retrospect, Clinton’s cautious approach was justified. This was Obama’s first term, therefore it is unlikely that he wanted his Secretary of State to be too eager to cause shockwaves around the world. Obama ultimately repatriated much of the power delegated to the State Department when it came to implementing foreign policy during Clinton’s tenure. In Obama’s first term, the handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the dealings with Iran and Pakistan, as well as many other politically perilous foreign policy issues were kept within the White House between Obama and a few special advisors. Obama ultimately allowed the nation’s military might rather than its diplomatic service to dictate foreign policy. Whether this decision was a good or bad call is debateable; but, what is certain is that at the end of Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, many domestically were calling for Obama to give back his next Secretary of State its traditional powers. Tired of the recurrent calls for military interventions in faraway lands, the American people wanted the next Secretary of State to be “chief diplomat” once again.

The American people undoubtedly got what they wanted. John Kerry, Obama’s second Secretary of State, certainly fits the bill of “chief diplomat”. One of his first decisions was also one of the most significant foreign policy decisions made during the Obama administration: Kerry decided to reinitiate and lead the dwindling Israel – Palestine peace negotiations. This was a move that his predecessor never took. In this one, brave, hugely risky decision, Kerry sent a message to the entire world: American diplomacy is back.

But, the negotiations have failed miserably. After incessant finger-wagging, childish bickering and preposterous demands, both corners have thrown in their towels, while the official at the middle of the ring leaves embarrassed and in an even worse position that before. Kerry’s keynote diplomatic mission has failed, and down with him he has dragged the reputation and credibility of diplomacy. Domestically, even the support for diplomacy that had previously existed has been dashed. Americans are increasingly frustrated with their government’s foreign policy. No longer is the main debate diplomacy or military. Now, it is whether America should involve itself at all.

The inherent flaw of diplomacy is that with each failure, the chances of its subsequent attempts to succeed are lowered. It is increasingly plausible to think that there won’t be peace established between Israel and Palestine in the foreseeable future, even in my lifetime. Whatever appetite that existed before for unrealistic compromise between these two seemingly perpetual enemies has all but been extinguished now.

Diplomacy has already failed for the United States in Egypt and Syria, and looks likely to fail in Iran. Her reputation suffers globally as it continues to fail in its diplomatic missions. Countries like China and Russia are watching these failures with glee: Russia’s carefree annexation of Crimea and China’s handling of the Sankaku Islands are two examples of these countries increasingly enterprising attitude. They justifiably sense a decline in America’s power; a decline in power caused by its failing diplomacy.